August 14, 2013

Inspiration: Chaos to Couture

I recently went to see the Met’s PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition for the second time before it closed. The first time I came away with a less than favorable opinion, so I wanted to give it another chance. My main problem was that while it was advertised toinclude original punk garments and recent, directional fashion to illustrate how haute couture and ready-to-wear borrow punk's visual symbols,” there was a definite slant towards the couture. I get it, it’s a fashion exhibit, but I feel like so much more could have been done because the concept is an interesting and legitimate one.

So much of the early punk subculture has found its way into contemporary fashion, which is ironic given the origins of the movement. In walking through the exhibit, I found so many missed opportunities to showcase the pioneers of punk whose influence was so readily on display. Though the galleries were filled with noise, videos, and the occasional picture, none of them seemed particularly relevant. There were so many times when I saw a couture piece and thought of how interesting it would be in conversation with an image of Siouxsie Sioux, Adam Ant, The Ramones, the New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, or any of the dozens of early influencers in the punk movement.

That was the primary reason for writing this post and while I don’t have the resources of the Met, I do have a unique perspective to offer. I love punk. I spent years going to shows and listening to albums. I even played in a band for a bit. I wanted to take one of the looks from my punk days and play it against a look put together to showcase the similarities and influence that punk has had on fashion. This could easily become encyclopedic, so I will limit the scope of this post to only the aspects featured in the two looks that I shot, but I welcome any questions or comments you may have.

Denim vest by Levis (customized); Leather jacket from thrift (customized);
Time Again band tee; Denim by Kill City; Boots by Altama; Hat from thrift;
Bandana, studded belts, leather bracelet from unknown/unbranded

Leather jacket by AllSaints; Studded knit by Marc by Marc Jacobs;
Tee by Kenneth Cole New York; Denim by Vince; Boots by John Varvatos;
Belt by Dolce & Gabbana; Sunglasses by Alexander McQueen;
Handmade vintage chainmail bracelet; Leather and silver bracelets from thrift;
Watch by Bulova; Bandana from unknown/unbranded

One of the things that the Met’s exhibit focused on was the DIY aspect of punk clothing and studs played a big part in that. This vest is the perfect example. What started out as a black Levi’s jacket subsequently had the sleeves cut off, patches sewn on, and 400+ pyramid studs applied by hand. I spent hours making this into the vest that I wanted because I couldn’t buy the perfect piece for me.  

The studded vest itself may be a slightly later evolution of punk, but what I felt was so lacking in the Met's exhibit was legitimate representation of original pieces. The couture pieces that appropriated this mentality were well represented, but other than some early pieces by Vivienne Westwood, not so much as a photo of early progenitors like the Misfits, Adam and the Ants, or The Adicts.

Studs made their way into so many aspects of fashion, but mostly on the women’s side of things. The studs down the front of this shirt play the hard metal against a really soft knit. I may not have a couture example like those showcased at the museum, but the fact that punk staples like studs have trickled down to men's ready-to-wear shows how prevalent these details have become in fashion.

Another big part of the punk movement is social and political commentary and a push against conformity. In punk imagery, this is usually (though not always) more blatant and/or aggressive as seen in this silhouetted image of what appears to be a battle of some sort. I’ve always found a kindred aesthetic in the approach that Kenneth Cole has to their designs and I could easily see this or a similar t-shirt design on the rack at Trash and Vaudeville. Each take imagery that pushes the boundaries of social nicety, like rebellion and nontraditional marriage, in the same way as Westwood's early pieces (like Two Cowboys), and screen it onto a t-shirt to be worn proudly.

What is immediately apparent from looking at nearly any photo of a ‘punk’ band in the 70s is that tight pants were the thing to wear and little has changed. Look at (almost) any fall runway show and you will see a parade of tight pants. Whether this one was a direct response to the punk aesthetic is debatable, but the correlation remains nonetheless. Another thing you will likely see is a lot of metal hardware. While studded, o-ring, and bullet belts are punk standards, flashy belt buckles are a fashion staple.

Accessorizing your look transcends subcultures. Bracelets, colored laces, pocket squares, pins, patches. If you mix and match decades, genres, and materials, the possibilities are endless.

I’ve always liked boots and while Converse Chuck Taylors are wildly popular in the punk scene, I preferred a good pair of combat boots. They are built to take a beating and, in my experience, are more comfortable than Dr. Martens. While I still wear them on occasion, these days, I lean more towards bench made.

The most important thing when developing your style is to be yourself and do what you like. Personalization is a driving force in style, not just when it comes to punk. It’s why DIY posts and sites like Etsy have become so popular. Want to add some color to your leather jacket? Go for it. Use a bandana as a handkerchief or pocket square? Why not?

I may have had my issues with the Met's presentation of punk's influence on couture, but that doesn't negate the power that punk has had on all levels of the fashion industry. Just like within the Met's exhibit, you can take those same tenants of punk, from it's DIY spirit to its attitude or prolific use of leather and metal, and let it inspire your own sartorial choices. A heavily studded denim vest and combat boots may not be for everyone, but punk's crossover into fashion can be a great lesson about using clothing to express your own individuality.

Stay stylish,
- JJ

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